Small Business

Eric Woods Of Harlem Vintage On Why He Left Wall Street To Start A Wine Business

Working as a trader at JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs from 1992 to 2003, Eric Woods enjoyed the expensive vacations, dinners and possessions his Wall Street income afforded. But he was arriving to work at 5:30 a.m., operating in what he describes as a dog-eat-dog environment and felt stress reactions every time he heard his BlackBerry buzz. "I definitely had a nice lifestyle, but that all comes with a price. You get handcuffed," Woods said. "Some people want to make changes in their lives but can't because they're beholden to that level of income."

Woods didn't fall into that trap. In 2004, his career swung to the other end of the pendulum and the opposite end of Manhattan, as he defected from Wall Street to open Harlem Vintage, Harlem's first boutique wine store. He expects revenues of $1.5 million this year and is credited with pioneering a renaissance of upscale businesses in the area.

HuffPost Small Business caught up with Woods to find out why he went from stocks to wine, and why the grass isn't always greener after all.

What's it really like working on Wall Street?

Everything from the outside looks much different then it does once you get inside. Wall Street tended to be glamorized, at least until the latest crash, when Wall Street was villianized. It's not glamorous -- it's a stressful lifestyle, a hard slog. I don't miss the internal machinations of working at a Wall Street firm, the jockeying and the way compensation is comprised. People on Wall Street always feel undervalued. People who haven't worked on Wall Street think getting paid that amount of money, you should be happy to do anything, but at some point, it's thankless. You're treated as a commodity.

Was there one moment when you knew you were done?

There were couple of moments, a confluence of factors. The post 9/11 environment was definitely it for me. And when people would send mass emails to my BlackBerry from London at 2 a.m., I thought "enough." Anything you put that much time into should be fun, right? Once things stop becoming enjoyable and you dread the alarm going off, that's when everything starts to suffer -- your work and your personal life.

Was there anything about Wall Street you missed after you left?

Wall Street is very good at picking smart people and training them to do things in a very exacting manner. There's no room for "I just couldn't get my act together this morning, so I'm going to be 15 minutes late." I like that military precision, so the biggest adjustment for me was dealing with people who didn't come from that background. And at Goldman and JPMorgan, someone is there in five minutes if something is wrong with your computer, and we had lunch delivered to our desks.

In small business, you are, as my grandmother would say, chef, cook and bottle washer. I'm the one figuring out how to get the computers to work now. Also, let's be frank, people made a lot of money on Wall Street after I left. I could wonder, "What would I be earning if I was still there?" But that's a false choice. The fulfillment you get from actually reaping the fruits of your labor is much more important than the size of a Wall Street check, in my opinion.

How did renovating your brownstone apartment give you the inspiration to create a wine business?

I understood that you could create anything from a blank canvas, making something beautiful out of a rundown box. It's metaphorical for life. You can create anything from your canvas.

Was the wine business an instant hit? What was the reaction from residents?

Elation. It was an immediate hit. It was kind of like "Field of Dreams" -- if you build it, they will come.

What did Wall Street teach you about being "long-term greedy," and how are you using that concept now as an entrepreneur?

That's one of the biggest takeaways I had from Goldman Sachs. Long-term greedy means if you provide a good service that people value, you will be compensated for that. If you don't look to gouge someone or get a quick hit when you see an opening, but actually be a partner, in the long term, everyone wins. Another thing I learned from Wall Street is a Socratic thing: Not knowing something isn't a barrier -- it's just a hurdle. You need the wherewithal to understand what needs to be figured out, how to figure it out and how to do it quickly.

You say that outsiders glamorize Wall Street, but owning an upscale wine business sounds glamorous as well. Do your Wall Street friends envy your lifestyle?

Every business is hard now, right? I think you're right that people will always glamorize the other side -- the "grass" is always greener. What you learn in life, though, is that the grass is never greener. It's just a different strain of grass. It might be wooly, thin or thick blade, but it's all grass.

But do you enjoy life more now?

I do. My father always hated me saying this, but I'd rather be richer in experience than in money. And I'm quickly making that true. That said, because of those interesting experiences, my life is much more fulfilling.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Eric Woods
Company: Harlem Vintage
Age: 43
Location: Harlem, N.Y.
Founded: 2004
Employees: 6
2012 Projected Revenue: $1.5 million

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